Disinfectants such as bleach and alcohol-based sanitizers are critical for controlling the COVID-19 virus in workplaces. But these products can also pose serious hazards to workers handling or using them. This has many workplaces asking, "Are we doing the right things to keep workers safe?"
WSPS Consultant Michael Puccini regularly fields concerns about safe disinfectant use and says a workplace's first step is to turn to the product's Safety Data Sheet (SDS). "It's the go-to for all the hazard information associated with a product," he notes. Provided by product manufacturers or suppliers, SDSs are a key component of the Workplace Hazardous Materials Information System (WHMIS). They detail hazards posed by the active ingredients, proper use and storage, controls, emergency response, and more.
Michael offers a list of best practices for keeping workers safe from hazards associated with disinfectants, but first, here's a reminder about WHMIS.
WHMIS is a national hazard communication standard for protecting workers who use, store and handle hazardous products. All workplaces with these products must have a WHMIS program in place. Employers' duties include collecting SDSs, identifying hazards, and establishing controls using the hierarchy of controls - elimination, substitution, engineering, administrative, and personal protective equipment (PPE).
An essential component of WHMIS is educating and training workers on how to work safely with hazardous products.
WHMIS requirements kick in every time a new hazardous chemical (or a stronger concentration of an existing chemical) is introduced into the workplace, including disinfectants to prevent the spread of COVID-19.
How hazardous can these products be? Very, depending on the product, the concentration, and how it's used. Possible health effects may range anywhere from minor skin irritation to permanent organ damage and death.*
7 Do's and Don'ts
These suggestions from Michael are based on common issues encountered in his work with WSPS customers.
- DON'T just read the product label. "The SDS will have precautionary statements and warning labels, such as 'Danger. Will Burn on Contact' and lots of other information that you may not see on the label," says Michael.
- DO ensure the SDS matches exactly the product you are using. Familiarity with a product may sometimes cause confusion. "If you've used a disinfectant in a 5% solution and are now using a 98% solution, don't rely on the original SDS. The hazards will have grown significantly, and controls will be different." Rely instead on an SDS for the product at the current concentration.
- DON'T mix products. It may cause a chemical reaction that could create potentially fatal off-gassing. This applies at home too.
- DO follow the SDS's recommended engineering controls. They could save lives. For example, ensuring good ventilation, either by exhausting the air or flushing an area with fresh air, can significantly reduce respiratory hazards. Likewise, keeping disinfectant use away from spark generating flame or equipment will prevent fires and explosions.
- DON'T apply the product without reading the instructions. You could create additional hazards. Follow SDS instructions, such as "Apply to a cloth and wipe onto a surface." In this instance, spraying the product might result in respiratory, skin and eye contact with floating particles. If you're not sure how to apply the product safely, contact the manufacturer.
- DO use PPE geared to the product type. For example, heavyweight plastic gloves protect hands from bleach; nitrile-based gloves, from alcohol-based products. Check the SDS for specifics.
- DO inform yourself. "If you're still unsure about how to use these products safely, ask a competent third party or check with the supplier for training videos."
How WSPS can help
* Learn more about hazards posed by common disinfectants in this US National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) document: Hazard Communication for Disinfectants Used Against Viruses